To redefine an entire genre of music is no easy task. Yet, that's exactly what A Tribe Called Quest did in the 1990s. By combining clever yet playful lyrics with jazz-infused soundscapes and Afro-centric aesthetics, Tribe influenced an entire generation of hip hop. Just ask Pharrell, Outkast or Kendrick Lamar.
Fans were stunned when they decided to part ways in 1998. That shock would only be matched by the surprise release of their first album in 18 years. We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service is their first number one album in 20 years and us DJs at KCRW ranked it as one of the top four albums of 2016.
I sat down with Jarobi White and Q-Tip of ATCQ to discuss the making of the new album, what compelled them to get back into the studio, the death of founding member Phife Dawg, and more. I was pleasantly surprised by some of their answers and how candid they were, and have a feeling you will be, too.
- KCRW DJ Aaron Byrd
Photo credits: Dustin Downing.
Aaron: Hey, my name is Aaron Byrd, here on Morning Becomes Eclectic. A Tribe Called Quest. To say they heavily influenced Hip-Hop would be intellectually dishonest when characterizing their impact on the genre. You know, when they burst onto the scene in 1990, infusing thoughtful yet playful lyrics with jazz melodies and Afro-centric sensibilities, Tribe really ushered in a new era of Hip-Hop. Then, in November after an 18-year hiatus and death of one of the founding members, Phife Dawg, fans were completely shocked when they dropped a new album. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service debuted at #1, and us DJs here at KCRW ranked it as one of the top four albums of 2016.
And with that, it brings me tremendous joy, and it is my distinct pleasure to welcome Jarobi: and Q-Tip: of the legendary collective, A Tribe Called Quest. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us here at KCRW.
Jarobi & Q-Tip: Thank you for having us. Thank you sir.
Aaron: So, a #1 album, critical acclaim, universal praise, so nearly a generation gap between full lengths. Tip, tell me what has surprised you the most with the success of this album.
Q-Tip:: Surprise. For me, personally, I guess all of it, in a way. We kind of always felt like, one of the mantras we were always saying was “it's already a success.” We were speaking more in terms of working, having fun, and the music, you know? So, to see all of these different points…those things are sweeteners, but, I guess the surprise of it all is that it's kind of gotten the other kind of success outside of what we spoke about initially.
Aaron: One thing that really stands out too is that you look at hip hop now and there aren't rap groups anymore. Was that part of the surprise as well? That there was a rap group that was this successful amongst all the individual MCs?
Jarobi: Um, I don't know if it's like a group thing or whatever, I just think that people are looking for something that they believe in and they believe is honest I think. I don't think a group or how many people has anything to do with that. I just think they look for honesty.
Aaron: Yeah, it comes through throughout the entire record too. Obviously the inner personal tension within the group has been well documented and some thought irreconcilable. So what was the impetus that lead to you guys setting aside your differences and coming together to work on this project? (Both laugh)
Jarobi: That's crazy to hear people talk about it like that. It's crazy!
Q-Tip: I'll put it to you like this, if you have a friend or a cousin, someone you grow up with since you've been a kid, right? Then you have some friction and you don't speak for a while and eventually you speak again. It's as simple as that. Any other long term friendship, brotherhood, sisterhood, what have you -- people have their friction and their ups and downs and we certainly had ours. This is not trying to underplay our tensions, everybody tends towards to gravitate towards that—and I understand why, because of the documentary and all that. But we were so back on it. We can't really say this happened and we started talking again. It just happened.
Jarobi: It was kind of like some divine order or something, we're not in control. I don't think we have much control of what is happening or whatever. I just think everything is just divinely inspired really.
Aaron: And you can hear it, you can hear it on this record. It sounds like you guys are having fun. There's a camaraderie there that we've missed since the early 90s, so just as a fan, we thank you for that. So talking about the recording, I'd love for you guys to take us into the studio. I mean it was the first time in a really long time that you guys were together- what was that like? Was it anything like you remembered it being, 20-odd years ago?
Jarobi: I feel like it was exactly the same, ya know? Us running around, Phife cracking his jokes, these guys going back and forth, Busta crashing every session… it was just like the '90s all over again. (both laugh)
Q-Tip: Yeah… that's true
Aaron: You know something else that was surprising to us fans when you dropped the record was that there was no indication that you guys were recording at all, only a handful of people knew. What kind of freedom did this secrecy allow you to have? Start with you, Jarobi.
Jarobi: For me, I think it was cool to not have a bunch of people over your shoulder like “oh what are you going to do? What is it going to sound like? oh you guys are in the studio! You guys are doing this! You doing that!” so that part of it was cool, and just the not knowing, the surprise of it was really dope to me.
Aaron: Tip, you want to say something?
Q-Tip: Yeah, it allowed us all sorts of freedom because you don't have to work … inside from what you have internally, which can be behemoth, but aside from that, you don't have any pressure, you can be free, you can create, you do your thing. You don't have to worry about any outside chatter about ‘oh, so everybody is expecting this, can't wait for this date, wonder what it'll sound like, I bet like they'll do this, people start writing think pieces about what the album is going to sound like… it could potentially freeze an artist up, I'm sure. But thankfully we escaped that and were left to our own devices.
Aaron: Well let's dive into the album a little bit. The very first track on We Got It From Here, is The Space Program is yours Tip, and you hear you and Phife for a few bars. And I was wondering if don't mind to recite the first couple of lines from that song.
Q-TIP: What is it…. It's time to go left and not right
Gotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters
For mothers and fathers and dead ni****
For non-conformists, one hitter quitters
For Tyson types and Che figures
Let's get it together, come on let's make it
Let's make something happen
Aaron: It sounds like you're really setting the tone for the entire project and the album. Can you expand on what that means and why it was important to kick off the album with that?
Q-Tip: First of all, when we sequenced it—we didn't get to that sequence, it was actually Tracey Waples who said, yo, you should put that first, then we talked to Michael Ostin and Kim and they were all like YEAH! That's a great suggestion! And it really did set the tone of the album. And obviously, the climate at the time was one that you couldn't ignore and it found its way into the work.
Aaron: Yeah, that's one of the many refreshing things of the album of how much of it is of the now, you touch on social and political issues of throughout - I think of songs of the top of my head: "The Killing Season" or "We the People," in fact the hook in "We the People" goes: All you black folks you must go. All you Mexicans, you must go. All you poor folks, you must go. Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways, so all you bad folks you must go.
Now the album dropped November 11. Tell me, was the date originally planned to be released on the 11th or did you push it up to coincide with the election which was just three days prior?
Jarobi: You know what man, I think the record came out when it needed to come out. We had a lot of pressure to finish it but me and him were always like when it's DONE, it's done. it just lined up. It was part of that divine order of things.
Aaron: You know, us long time Tribe fans we know that you have always touched on social issues. You've never been apolitical but you've never been mistaken for public enemy. I wonder, how do you see the role of an artist today? Maybe we'll start with you, Tip.
Q-Tip: That's a very tricky question, because there's really no wrong answer, you know what I mean? So if that's the case and there's no wrong answer, I'll say that the role of an artist should be one where they are transparent and introspective, courageous and should have a degree of responsibility.
That responsibility should be to themselves and also be to their world, whatever their world is, because if you are a punk rocker there's rules to that world and you may have to be cognizant of that. Or if you view yourself as a humanitarian as an artist than the greater world, do you know what I mean? So, it's not to kind of like escape any sort of exactness to the answer, but I think the responsibility of an artist is just to be dope. Be f*cking great. And strive for f*cking greatness, it's that simple.
Aaron: Now you guys got together around '85, '86 originally, so what were your thoughts of the role... (they laugh)…I'm wondering now you're grown men, you're lived a lot of life, you've had plenty of experience, what were your thoughts of the role as an artist then when you first started?
Jarobi: I think for us, we just wanted to be the best dudes, you know what I mean? We grew up listening to all these bands, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, you know what I'm saying, stuff like that and we just wanted to be good. I don't even think we were necessarily trying to be rap artists or anything like that. I don't think we even cared what the title of it was, but I know that we wanted to be good. We wanted to be the fly-est dudes in the hood. Do you know what I'm saying? That was the only goal, I think that was the only goal as an artist, to be the best. Do you know what I mean?
Aaron: The authenticity came through and we see it in the examples of all the folks that you guys have influenced, from producers to MCs alike.
Once again this is Aaron Byrd on Morning Becomes Eclectic. I'm here with Jarobi and Q-Tip: of A Tribe Called Quest. (Recites Phife Dawg lyrics)
Yo, microphone check, 1,2 what is this? The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business. I float like gravity, never had a cavity, got more rhymes than the Winans got family.
Man, I'm imagining people listening to that, they're reciting right along. There's no one quite like Trini gladiator, the five-footer. Of course I'm talking about Phife Dawg. In March, when he passed away, us fans lost a beloved MC who delivered some of the most memorable lines in Hip Hop history but, of course, for you guys, he was more than just a bandmate, he was a brother.
You know I think about after a tragedy, many people use work as a distraction, a place to escape their grief. You guys obviously weren't afforded that luxury because your work is intimately connected with the tragedy. Jarobi, I wonder were there ever moments or thoughts of discontinuing the project?
Jarobi: No. Nah, this album was meant to be out here. It's meant to be done, you know what I'm saying. My boy sacrificed his life to do it. There's no way HELL we wasn't going to finish the album. There's no way we weren't going to finish the album.
Aaron: After his passing did you guys get right back into the studio and get to work, or did you take some time?
Jarobi: After being in a puddle of goo for a couple of days, we shaped ourselves back together and started trying to do stuff. I wouldn't call it a real break, just a tiny little break.
Just for us to be able to console ourselves long enough to be able to do it. Like you said, it's all wrapped up in the music. And, I feel for my boy, like, having to listen to his vocals over and over again, that was really, really, really, really tough. You know what I'm saying.
I admire Tip for doing that and going through it, cause I know that wasn't easy at all. It couldn't have been easy.
Q-Tip: Thank you bro.
Aaron: You know, you guys really detailed your personal relationships with Phife and “lost somebody”, I wonder what exactly does that song represent to you? Tip, we'll start with you.
Q-Tip: It's a song of consoling, you know what I mean? It's really probably the most cathartic song on there. Accepting it, working through it, putting it out there, you know, really letting go and letting guide kind of song. Which is why we put a little silence after it, just like space as that saying goes “still waters run deep” or the stillness of it…
Aaron: Let it breathe.
Q-Tip: Yeah, let it sink in. I'm sure everybody is going through that, went through that, currently everybody goes through that.
Aaron: Yeah absolutely, and also for us as fans, we thank you for adding that to the record because it's also a form of reconciliation for us. If you guys can come to terms with a sense of closure or at least an attempt at it, than certainly we can.
Talking about closure, there's a mystique of finality with this album. Tip you even referenced it in “Ego” when you state “this is the last tribe,” so if this is indeed the final chapter of A Tribe Called Quest, what would you like your legacy to be? Jarobi, maybe we'll start with you.
Jarobi: I just want people to look back and be like these dudes were the truth. They were honest with their music. But other than that, that's not for me to say, that's for other people to say.
Q-Tip: I don't even concern myself with legacy. We're in an age now where you hear lots of rappers specifically talk about their legacy and I can't even imagine how that works, how you're an artist and you're consumed with your legacy and you're still an active artist, even for you to have the gumption and gall, to think that there is one. People float things by and you have to be accommodating to certain conversations but truly, as an artist, I don't even think about that.
Aaron: Seriously though, as a fan we have you guys to thank for the likes of Outkast, Pharrell (Williams), Kendrick (Lamar), all of these artists and subsequently whomever they influenced, is a part of A Tribe Called Quest legacy and so we really thank you for that.
Before we get out of here I have to ask, will there be a tour? (Tip starts humming gospel) I don't hear a no.
Q-Tip: What was that? That was from The Jeffersons at the end right? When they slowed it down. Do you remember that?
Aaron: I do remember that. So I don't speak hymnal though, was that March 16? Was that the first day?
Jarobi: He said “I don't speak hymnnal though.” Turn to page 314 in your hymnal.
Q-Tip: I mean, hey man, we'll see.
Aaron: This has to be the most creative and entertaining way to avoid a question but I'm gonna go ahead and let that slide.
Q-Tip: You like that?! You like that?! Alright!
Aaron: I appreciate it. I appreciate it. I'm going go ahead and let you guys get out of here. I just want to tell you on a serious note, as a fan of the group that puts out an album after a long break, there's always some excitement always met with skepticism “Is it really going be good?” and you guys put all those worries to bed with this album and you know that I'm here now as an ambassador of both KCRW and millions of Tribe fans around the world and from that perspective we want to thank YOU for your service
Jarobi: Thank you.
Q-Tip: Oh man, that was nice of you. Thank you brother.
Aaron: Once again, Jarobi and Q-Tip: of the legendary group, A Tribe Called Quest. This is Aaron Byrd on Morning Becomes Eclectic.
A Tribe Called Quest